Breathing for Life
By Sonia Osorio
Are We Suffocating Ourselves?
I didn't breathe during most of my 20s -- or at least
I didn't breathe fully.
I had no idea my chronically tight shoulders, constricted
intestines, insomnia and unyielding jaw tension were so closely related
to my limited breath. To regain my health, I had to relearn how to breathe.
And, though I still have to remind myself to do this from time to time,
I understand how healthy breathing supports the body's ability to heal
Breathing is a process still categorized as "unconscious"
by most medical texts, yet many of us need to relearn how to breathe
properly -- both consciously and fully. It is our unawareness of this
life function that may sap us of life-giving energy.
Breathing involves the whole body, our whole being,
in fact. The word "inspiration" comes from the Latin root
"spiritus," meaning not only breath, but vitality, the animating
principle, the soul. To breathe is not only to inspire, but to be inspired,
to nourish our body and our spirit, to take into ourselves the vitality
that is our birthright and to feel the creative energy that is our life
"Every breath is a sacrament, an essential ritual,"
says environmentalist David Suzuki in his book The Sacred Balance. "Air
is a matrix that joins all life. As we imbibe this sacred element, we
are physically linked to all our present biological relatives, countless
generations that have preceded us and those that will follow."
If breath is so essential, then why don't more of
us do it correctly? Sure, we all know how to breathe, or rather, our
bodies do. But breathing occurs on several levels. The autonomic function
creates the basic urge to breathe -- something governed by our nervous
system. But often even this essential function is reduced to a series
of shallow breaths if we're stressed, tense or nervous -- the makings
of a typical day in today's society. Over time, this becomes a learned
pattern so that even when the stressful situation has long gone our
body is still functioning in shallow-breath mode, taking in a fraction
of what it needs to be fully nourished.
Old Mechanisms, Modern World
The shallow breathing pattern we often fall into is associated with
the "fight-or-flight" response, when our body senses imminent
danger or attack. Stress directly provokes this response: we feel under
attack, though there's no direct predator, only an on-going feeling
of having to "fight" or "flee" from the source of
our stress. Since we don't confront our "attacker" or have
the opportunity to feel safe from the perceived threat, our nervous
system remains on constant alert, limiting our breath to help divert
blood away from certain organs and into the muscles to prepare us for
action. We are modern creatures reacting with age-old mechanisms to
On top of our biological responses, we get other messages,
subtle and not-so-subtle, to hold our breath. We're told to "suck
in our guts," we multitask without having time to "catch our
breath," we're not expected to express too loudly and we learn
to numb out what's raging through us. We're bombarded daily with demands
from work, household and family. We have to process incessant input
in the form of noise, visual stimuli, smells and pollution from all
kinds of sources. Why would any body in its right mind want to take
all that in?
Don't Hold Your Breath
Breathing incorrectly for three minutes is enough to lower the amount
of oxygen to the brain and heart by 30 percent. If this goes on for
years, there's an increased risk for conditions ranging from chronic
headaches, digestive disturbances and neck, back and shoulder pain,
to more serious illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease,
asthma and chronic fatigue. In fact, some experts estimate that improper
breathing can be associated with 50 percent to 70 percent of all diseases.
Emotional reactions also affect our breath: fear,
anger, sadness and low self-esteem can make us hold or limit our breathing
patterns. However, breathing fully can have a positive effect by helping
move these emotions through the body, instead of allowing them to constrict
our breath, tighten our muscles, and affect other systems and organs
in the body.
"Every inspiration is an opportunity to resource and replenish
ourselves," says Montreal musician and composer Étienne
Larouche, who has worked with voice and breath since a young age. "As
we inhale, we can release, so energy can come into the body, making
our breath always available, without forcing."
We may not think of inhalation as release, as that
is normally associated with exhalation. But, breathing fully is precisely
about release -- release not only of tension, but of control. Conscious
breathing is not about controlling the breath, but about increasing
our awareness of the process. It should leave us feeling revived by
allowing us to completely take in the oxygen we need to nourish our
blood, muscles and brain as we inhale, and completely expel accumulated
toxins and stress as we exhale.
Full, relaxed breathing can, among other things, improve
our resistance to stress, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, ease
pain, and help release muscular and emotional tension. And, it can calm
and focus us. Studies have shown that when the breath is relaxed, brain-wave
patterns change, the mind quiets and the body relaxes.
Conscious breathing is not only calming, it has distinct
effects on our blood chemistry and immune system. Studies have shown
that the level of white blood cells, related to our immune response,
actually rise when we are in a calm, relaxed state. A recent study in
the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that participants
who used techniques such as breathing, muscle relaxation and visualization
had a 26 percent to 39 percent increase in their immune response.
Such techniques have also been of benefit to pre-
and post-surgery patients -- reducing anxiety and pain, improving recovery
times and reducing length of hospital stays. Women who learn deep-breathing
techniques and apply these during childbirth have shorter labor times,
less complications during delivery and faster healing post-delivery.
Be Here Now
A Pennsylvania study examining brain-wave patterns demonstrated we can
hold one thought for the length of one inhalation and exhalation, with
each full breath, a new thought enters. This is one of the basic principles
of meditation: single-focused attention, slow, full breath. Even a few
minutes spent following our breath in this way -- breathe in, hold one
thought, breathe out, release the thought -- can have dramatic changes
on how we cope with stress and its effect on the body and the mind.
Beyond the physiological perks, there's an emotional
and spiritual benefit to conscious breathing. We can use it to remind
ourselves we are here now, in this body and in this moment, not ruminating
about the past or worrying about the future. There's peace to be found
in being present for ourselves: as we focus on our breath and our bodies,
we can focus on our emotions, we can regain perspective and then take
action from a place of calmness.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thick Nhat Hanh, who has
written numerous books and lectured worldwide on meditation, peace and
mindfulness, says: "Our breathing is the link between our body
and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking one thing and our body
is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating
on our breathing, we bring body and mind back together and become whole
again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge."
It's a bridge many of us would benefit from crossing,
a place of great perspective and of life-giving breath.
Breathing in the Moment
A full breath involves the whole body. On the "in"
breath, the belly distends slightly and the lower ribs move up and widen,
while the shoulders and chest are relatively still. This should be a
relaxed action, without gasping or gulping in air. Release control of
the action. Feel the air come into your body and realize that this happens
quite naturally, without forcing. The "out" breath should
involve no effort whatsoever; it's simply a release, like a sigh. Our
lungs do this on their own, without us having to "push" the
air out of our bodies, and the ribs and belly will gently fall back
into place, preparing us for the next inhalation.
"Incorrect" breathing is shallow breathing
from the top of our chests, or breath that's held too long or with uneven
inhalations and exhalations. Next time you're trying to catch your breath,
speaking too quickly, or feeling tense or anxious, notice what happens
to your breath and you'll have a sense of how it's limited, not moving
fully from belly to chest. Then take a deep breath, to the count of
four, from your belly (place your hand there, if it helps keep the focus),
letting it rise through your ribs, up to your shoulders, and then release
it, like a sigh, to the count of four. Take a few more breaths like
this, relaxing your body from your feet through your legs, torso, hands,
arms, shoulders, neck and head. Follow your breath (in to the count
of four, out to the count of four) without forcing or insisting: just
the breath, just for now, just this moment.